“Compulsion” Lacks Dramatic Structure

By David A. Rosenberg

When puppet characters are more compelling than live ones, you know you’re in trouble. So it is with Rinne Groff’s awkward “Compulsion,” having its world premiere at Yale Rep. On stage are facts and research; left in the wings is dramatic structure.
The disappointing play, for which “Obsession” would be a better title, tells of Meyer Levin, here called Sid Silver, and his true-life struggles to get his stage adaptation of Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” produced. The first act is devoted to dull internecine talk about producers and contracts, while the second is a jumble of ideas that not only don’t coalesce but evoke giggles. With dialogue that is less conversational than antiphonal and no clear line of development, the evening seems a lot longer than its two-plus hours.

The thematic thread is Silver’s devotion to Anne Frank’s writing and his overwhelming need to make a play of the famous diary. He also demonstrates a growing attachment to her as a symbol of persecution, a banner to rally behind and, weirdly, an object of both veneration and desire. Indeed, one potentially interesting scene has Anne, who’s incarnated as a puppet, in bed with Silver’s wife. How much more provocative if she were in bed with Silver!

Groff piles on the facts, including swipes at playwright Lillian Hellman’s  hoping the diary would be watered down on stage. Groff seems to want to include all of Levin’s difficulties, as detailed in several books, Including Francine Prose’s new “Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife.” (Prose characterizes Levin’s version as “too serious” and ponderous.) 

Groff’s Silver is a kvetching hysteric and who better to play such a possessed character than Mandy Patinkin? The Tony winning star is in his element here, stomping about, bellowing to the point of being inarticulate and generally chewing the sparse scenery.

Considering the script, who can blame him? When he and his wife move to Israel, bits of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are thrown in for good measure, contributing to Silver’s eventual breakdown. The sight of his rocking back and forth in prayer hints at how the basic material might have been re-worked to show an obsessive, self-described pig-headed, narcissistic and enraged man ruining his marriage. Hints of still another arc come when Silver all but propositions the Anne who might have been had she survived and grown up. 

As for the puppets, they re-enact scenes from the Anne Frank play that was finally written by two Hollywood scribes, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who were married to each other. The screenwriters’ credits include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a scene from which is co-opted to depict a puppet enactment of Silver’s wife’s attempted suicide. It’s confusing since it’s the only use of puppets not connected with Anne Frank.

Silver’s argument is that the Hacketts slid by the diary’s Jewishness in their effort to add universality and humor, thereby making their play salable to a wide audience. He also vehemently objected to the idea of saying all people have been persecuted, instead of focusing on the plight of the Jews and the Holocaust.

But we’re given only snippets of Silver’s version, in Hebrew language scenes when his play is done in Israel. Ironically, it’s when puppets enact scenes from both versions, the Hacketts’ and Silver’s, that the evening sparks.

As staged by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of New York’s Public Theater, the evening struggles to avoid stasis, without much luck. Both Hannah Cabell and Stephen Barker Turner are excellent in various roles and let’s hear it for  puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright, under the supervision of Matt Acheson.

“Compulsion” has the dubious distinction of making one of the most fascinating and important works to come out of World War II into an appendage. As one character puts it, “What a bloody waste.”

 

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